Celebrating Women’s History Month: Professors break gender barriers

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Remarkable women have been part of Roosevelt since its founding in 1945, starting with the first advisory board chair, Eleanor Roosevelt. In the 70 years since, Roosevelt has counted many extraordinary women among its students, staff, trustees and friends.

But in one particular area—the faculty—Roosevelt women really stood out as pioneers at a time when very few women were hired to teach in coeducational colleges. We can find the first women professors in the 1946 academic catalog. While it’s true that in some areas we mirrored common gender discrimination—for example, the School of Commerce with its almost entirely male faculty, save for one woman, an instructor in “secretarial practice”—in other fields we did better. The School of Music included six women on its faculty roster. And the College of Arts and Sciences, with 86 faculty members total, included 16 women who taught sociology, English, speech, economics, languages, education, psychology and philosophy. While that may sound like a small percentage today (just 18 percent of the faculty), it’s a much higher percentage of women professors than at many universities even 40 years later, in 1980.

In honor of Women’s History Month, we highlight three of the pioneering women who taught at Roosevelt College in 1946: Dance professor Sybil Shearer, sociologist Rose Hum Lee, and education professor and television star Frances Horwich.

Sybil Shearer

Sybil Shearer Portrait

A modern dance and choreography pioneer, Sybil Shearer came to Chicago after her 1941 debut at Carnegie Hall. She continued to perform, usually as a soloist, but also worked as a dance professor, first at the YMCA College and then Roosevelt College, where she was on the faculty from 1945 to 1951 and established our first dance program. It is said that Roosevelt President Edward Sparling told her that he had acquired the Auditorium Building so she could dance on the theatre stage. She has been described as “original, provocative, unpredictable, a maverick, a poet of movement, a near legendary figure and a gentle rebel.”

Watch Sybil Shearer dance:

Rose Hum Lee

Rose Hum Lee at RU
Rose Hum Lee (left) with colleagues at Roosevelt University.

When Rose Hum Lee was appointed to teach in Roosevelt’s sociology department in 1945, she was the first woman of Chinese descent on the faculty. She also became the first Chinese woman to earn a PhD in sociology at the University of Chicago. And when she was appointed chair of Roosevelt’s sociology department in 1956, she became the first Chinese-American to chair an American university academic department, man or woman.

A productive scholar and teacher, Lee wrote journal articles and textbooks about Chinese immigration and assimilation, urban studies, comparative social welfare and art. She also wrote an article about Roosevelt College as an “atomic age” institution meant to “impart the truth to all regardless of race, color or creed.” She retired in 1962 to complete research in Arizona on the status of American-Indian children.

Frances Horwich

Frances Horwich Portrait

A schoolteacher who became a professor, Frances Horwich taught early childhood education at Roosevelt from 1946 to 1952. Her research appeared in several leading journals, and in 1949 she was elected president of the National Association of Nursery Education. She became department chair in 1951 at a time when few women led academic departments.

Academic achievements aside, Horwich is most known for her role as “Miss Frances,” host of the Ding Dong School, one of the earliest preschool television programs in the world. Starting in 1952, Ding Dong School broadcast on NBC to 2.5 million young viewers a day. Horwich invented the technique of speaking to the audience as if they were in the same room, a style later adopted by Fred Rogers and the cast of Sesame Street. She is said to have finally parted with NBC over the issue of the commercialization of children’s television.

To see how much children’s television has changed, watch Miss Frances teach children how to make a sandwich on an episode of the Ding Dong School.

Do you remember Miss Frances? Are you just discovering these women after reading this post? Is there another Roosevelt pioneer who inspires you? Let us know in the comments.

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